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Biden urges gun controls as another mass shooting alters his pandemic-relief tour

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In his first remarks on the supermarket shooting in Boulder, Colo., that killed 10 people Monday, President Biden called on Congress to move quickly to toughen gun laws, asking lawmakers to close loopholes in the background-check system and ban assault weapons and high-capacity magazines.

For the second time in a week, President Biden’s campaign to broaden public awareness and support for his pandemic relief benefits has been overshadowed by a mass shooting, thrusting the fraught issue of gun control to the fore.

Delivering hastily scheduled remarks Tuesday from the White House before departing for Ohio, Biden said, “We have to act.” He vowed “to use all the resources at [his] disposal to keep the American people safe,” but called on Congress to expand background checks and ban assault weapons.

The president, in traveling to Columbus, planned to highlight how the new $1.9-trillion relief law will reduce healthcare costs. But first he had to address Monday’s mass shooting in Boulder, Colo., that left 10 people dead, just six days after the mass shooting of eight people in the Atlanta area.

“While we’re still waiting for more information regarding the shooter, his motive, the weapons he used, the guns, the magazines, the weapons, the modifications ... I don’t need to wait another minute, let alone an hour, to take commonsense steps that will save lives in the future and to urge my colleagues in the House and Senate to act,” Biden said. He called on the Senate to pass two House-approved bills closing background check loopholes for gun buyers.

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“This is not and should not be a partisan issue,” he continued. “This is an American issue. It will save lives — American lives.”

It’s unclear what the president can do, or get Congress to do, given Democrats’ slim margins of control and most Republicans’ opposition to any limits on gun ownership. And Biden knows firsthand, as a former vice president and senator, the frustration of being unable to get legislation passed even after mass shootings and with broad public support.

He isn’t ruling out taking executive action on gun controls, Press Secretary Jen Psaki told reporters aboard Air Force One en route to Ohio.

Biden, asked by a reporter in Columbus whether he has the political capital to win approval of gun measures, said simply, “I hope so,” as he crossed his fingers as if for luck. “I don’t know. I haven’t done any counting yet.”

Last week, Biden postponed a scheduled event to tout the so-called American Rescue Plan with Vice President Kamala Harris in Atlanta after eight people, including six women of Asian descent, were gunned down at three spas in the area. Biden met with community leaders to decry the rising violence and racism against Asian Americans amid a pandemic that originated in China.

Shootings at three Atlanta-area spas prompted Biden to change plans for his Georgia trip and schedule meetings with Asian American leaders.

The back-to-back changes in Biden’s message for Atlanta and now Columbus underscored just how captive presidents are to the events and bad news that interrupt their well-laid plans. In his first two months in office, Biden largely adhered to his administration’s script around the $1.9-trillion coronavirus relief package and a rapidly accelerating vaccination program. But suddenly the mass shootings, as well as a mounting immigration crisis on the southern border, are preoccupying the White House and threatening to blunt Biden’s early momentum.

Still, Democratic pollster Jeremy Rosner noted, Biden framed his remarks about the Colorado shootings within a broader message that referenced the administration’s pandemic response as well, stating that keeping Americans safe is his primary responsibility.

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“There are ways to take issues of gun violence and safety and integrate them” without losing sight of other priorities, Rosner said. “The most important thing in the country right now is COVID,” Rosner added, saying Biden “will be defined and judged by how he deals with that.”

Harris briefly addressed the shooting during a swearing-in ceremony Tuesday morning for new CIA Director William Burns.

“It’s absolutely baffling — it’s 10 people going about their day, living their lives, not bothering anybody,” she said. “A police officer who is performing his duties, and with great courage and heroism.”

Former President Obama and former First Lady Michelle Obama also issued a statement: “A once-in-a-century pandemic cannot be the only thing that slows mass shootings in this country. We shouldn’t have to choose between one type of tragedy and another. It’s time for leaders everywhere to listen to the American people when they say enough is enough.”

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At the White House, Biden ordered the flags lowered to half-staff. They had just been raised to full staff on Monday, after the president issued a similar order following the shootings in Georgia.

Meanwhile, Republicans, who failed to mount a cohesive case against Biden’s pandemic relief package, have seized on the administration’s struggles to control the surge of Central American migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border, fanning the flames of a divisive issue and distracting attention from Biden’s emphasis on the popular relief law.

Biden has criticized former President Trump’s immigration programs as inhumane, but has nonetheless maintained his predecessor’s restrictive policy that enables border officials to turn away asylum seekers. The administration has refused to call the situation a crisis, even as Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas has indicated that border crossings could surge to a 20-year high this year, driven in part by the perception that Biden’s administration will be more lenient than Trump’s was.

Mounting pressure to address immigration and gun control could divert Washington’s and the public’s focus from Biden’s next major legislative push, a potentially $3-trillion package for infrastructure projects and education initiatives intended as a second phase of economic development measures.

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John Podesta, who was a White House chief of staff to former President Clinton and an advisor to Obama, said the Biden White House’s ability to stay focused on its COVID-19 relief package through a chaotic transition and Trump’s second Senate impeachment trial gives him optimism.

“They isolated all of those distractions, which is a testament to their discipline,” Podesta said. “I think they’ll stay on the main highway with the [infrastructure legislation]. But they’ve got to get on top of the reality of the surge at the border and manage it appropriately.”

The Senate Judiciary Committee met Tuesday to discuss the recent gun violence and proposals to tighten background checks for purchases online or at gun shows. The hearing was scheduled after the Atlanta-area shootings, but the massacre at the Boulder grocery store heightened the issue’s relevance.

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House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) called it “a stark reminder that, even as we begin to beat back the COVID-19 pandemic, we still confront an epidemic of gun violence in this country.”

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who led the Senate hearing, asserted that Congress’ lack of action on gun safety made it complicit in the violence. “Inaction has made this horror completely predictable,” he said. “Thoughts and prayers are not enough, but thoughts and prayers are all we’ve heard from my colleagues on the other side of the aisle.”

Congress’ last significant push on gun control ended in April 2013, when a bipartisan amendment by two moderate lawmakers, Sen. Joe Manchin III(D-W.Va.) and Sen. Patrick J. Toomey (R-Pa.), drew the support of a majority, 54 to 46, but failed because it fell short of the 60-vote threshold necessary to end a filibuster of the measure.

Passing gun control legislation probably hinges on Democrats abolishing the Senate’s long-standing filibuster rule, as many party voters demand so that progressive bills can succeed.

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Although Democrats control the evenly divided Senate, they don’t yet appear to have the support of 50 senators to kill the filibuster. It’s unclear whether a groundswell of support for action on gun safety could be a further impetus, along with the pressure to protect voting rights.

“Where the Republicans are intractably opposed to solutions but the country’s unified around the solution, the question is: Will eventually the filibuster have to give way?” Podesta said. “Making progress on protecting people from disenfranchisement efforts and from gun violence — all of that probably can’t be done as long as the filibuster is still in place.”

Although Biden has not endorsed an effort to repeal the filibuster, he signaled openness to rule changes by expressing interest in returning to a “talking filibuster,” which would require senators to speak indefinitely to block legislation.

“He is not going to allow for obstruction to get work done for the American people,” Psaki said. “But his preference and priority is working with members of both parties.”

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Times staff writer Chris Megerian contributed to this report.


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